Purabi Basu is a pharmacologist by profession. Apart from several articles in her own field, Dr. Basu is also an exceptionally fine short story writer, receiving the Anannya Shahitya Purashkar in 2005. Among her collections of short stories are Purabi Basur Galpa (1989), Ajanma Parabasi (1992), Se Nahi Nahi (1995), Anitya Ananda (2000) and Josna Karechhe Ari (2005). The following short fiction piece has been translated from her book, 'Dinratrir Chhayaghar'.
I did not come here floating on the floods.
But, I had once crossed the ocean on a boat. I too had a home once; a house. It had windows grilled with iron bars. My aged Maa and Baba used to live there; Dulal as well. There is no one left anymore. Nothing is left. Even then, I am still on a journey back there.
The well built, tall boy sitting by me on the same travel was listening to me intently. It's been a while since I have been rambling on. The boy's name is Tomal; he too had come to this country through immigration, being lucky enough to have been selected through the DV Lottery. He is now on his way back to get married in his motherland. That was all he had said to me about himself; I know nothing more.
I guess that is how it works for the ones with good luck on their side. We could not have even imagined in our wildest dreams during our times to win a lottery to visit America. How could we think of returning home on a whim to get married? That too after just two years of being here; for only a three-week long visit. Is he mad? Who has that kind of money? Where is the time? Where would one get the Visa?
The blue passport identical to mine belonging to the ice cold corpse of the man that I am bringing along with me to the country in this hull of an airplane similar to the coffin he is confided in, is stashed away in my bag. This little blue book is the root of how we were acquainted in the first place. But, it surprises me to see how he has left it behind in such nonchalant manner. Had he no idea whatsoever as to how valuable this document is? Or, had the need for it expired with him?
My story is different. I did not come here floating on the floods. But, I had definitely crossed the ocean on a boat.
Oh the waves! Our small boat had resurfaced after nearly sinking many a times. All my fellow travellers were men. I had sat very haphazardly in one corner. I knew no one else other than Hasan and Biru on the boat, even though almost all of them were Bengali. Hasan and Biru had fared with me from Germany. We had started off for the Bahamas on the same plane. It has been twenty three years since that day. Parul had put a small bag into my hands at the airport. She had whispered into my ear, “Don't open it now. Look into it later. You never know, but it might come to use sometime. Who knows where you will be and in what state?”
I was blown away as soon as I had opened the packet in seclusion while in the plane's lavatory. My friend Parul had given me three birth control pills; even though no one else knew better than her that I was still a virgin at the time. Even though everything was written in German on the cover of the packets, I understood right off the bat what the pills were for. I was not able to thank her for her foresight even after when we had met again much later in New York. I had just hugged her very tightly with all the love I could. She wreaked of fish, maybe because she was working at the raw fish section of the Chinese market. Mita was five years old then, and Ornob was three. I had gone to the market to buy some shrimp and catfish for them. Parul works at the same store even to this day; she is now the cashier.
The agents did not cheat us. The living and food arrangements were not too shabby. On top of which, arrangements were made for me to stay at another woman's home during the night, for me being a woman. The woman was high on marijuana and was sitting in the veranda with her male companion all night. Her hair was braided in very thin and fine braids. I had been as stiff as a board in one corner of the room overcome with fear. But they had not bothered me at all. I remember how the full moon was out that night. It's uncanny how it's exactly the same moon out tonight.
They had warned us as to how the boat would not go all the way to the shore. We had all clumsily jumped and splashed into the waters. I had then understood why it was necessary to know how to swim to be able to go there. It was not very far off from dawn. The beach was empty; we would all be out of danger if we could just manage to walk into town unnoticed in our wet clothes. The name and whereabouts of the lawyer was in the plastic bag. But not every one of us was carrying luck with us; some of us were captured, while the rest evaded being arrested. I was jailed for two days. I could not understand, or pretended not to, whatever the constable was asking for. They had to bring in a translator ultimately. I was not too scared. I knew nobody could deport me once I had stepped foot onto the soils of that country. Biru was amongst the captured ones as well. It was extremely fortunate that Hasan had escaped. He was the one who had corresponded with the lawyer and the Bengalis in Germany and New York and had accumulated funds on our behalf. I can never pay my debt to Hasan. On the boat, he said “Tell my wife to marry Anwar if somehow I end up dead.” I had inquired of the inside joke and had asked both Hasan and his wife Reba of who this Anwar character was, to which both of them had laughingly said he was Hasan's childhood friend. They had both known that Anwar was infatuated with Reba. That's besides the point, it was not Anwar, but it was Hasan in reality who had grabbed on tight and never let go of Reba. He is still holding onto her in Miami city. They have never been to New York with purposes of settling there. Their eldest son was killed in a car crash last year.
I did not come here floating on the floods. But, I had once crossed the ocean on a boat.
I am from the land of the Padma, Jamuna and Meghna. I have never been afraid of the water. But then again it would be absolutely a lie to say that I have no fear. Days went by, and the nights all came and went as well. We were on our way to an unseen destination surviving only on dry biscuits, chickpeas and water. We never thought we would see dry land ever again. And the waves! Oh my… the waves! Each and every time we thought, “this is it… we won't survive much longer”. But then gain, we did survive. The round moon in the sky was a bit broken on the side, with infinitely many stars behind it adorning the sky. I used to stare at it and wonder if Parul was looking at the same sky from Germany, or Dulal from Tarpasha, or Harun Bhai or Bhabi from New York. Would we ever be able to reach the shore? There would always be the continuous swishing sound of moving water from the ocean below us. We could never hear the boatman's tongue, neither could he understand a word we spoke. He knew just a couple of words in English. Puns aside, we were all the same farers of the same boat we knew very little English ourselves. We had to make do with what we could in terms of communication, while constantly praying that we reach the shore soon enough. As far as I know, there were none amongst us with a degree. There was only one other besides Hasan Yunus who studied till college. I knew not what language the three dark men from another country spoke who were huddled together in the corner opposite mine. They were infrequently tearing long pieces of bread and having it while whispering amongst them.
Harun Bhai is not related to me. He is related to my neighbour. I had brought along their phone number and address to the apartment in Astoria. I had gone to their place as soon as I had reached New York in the night. They allowed me to stay only because they could not let a Bengali girl stay out in the dark night. They had handed me four subway tokens, five dollars, and a copy of a local, irregularly published Bengali newspaper and had stormed out the door to go to work. As I looked back on the closed door of the apartment, I understood the subtle hint they had made by giving me the four subway tokens. I could not have returned there that night.
I was a bit surprised on reading the advertisement on the back of the paper. But I never thought I would heed to the advertisement's call. But as soon as I had decided to, I started to ask about for directions and finally ended up in front of their door. I had already spent one of the tokens by then. It was a red brick house only two blocks away from the subway.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Translated by Hasan Ameen Salahuddin
Illustrated by Ujjal Ghose